Friday, June 23, 2017

Book Review: 'Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility' by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

Review by BlueThunder (Nom de plume)
As an environmentalist and as a progressive, I was somewhat wary when I picked up my copy of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility by Ted Nordhaus & Michael Shellenberger. It sounded like it prescribed an easy answer to a myriad of complex problems associated with global warming. From what I had heard their entire argument was essentially this: we could fix all our environmental woes if we simply spent more on clean energy.
Needless to say, I was skeptical. 
Stick with me over the jump for more.
The authors thesis is three fold....
  1. The so-called politics of limits, the legislative attempts at limiting consumption, pollution, carbon  emissions and other foul odors, had been completely ineffective and were counter productive. This includes the 'end of the world' doom and gloom frame environmentalists tend to use.
  1. The authors call instead for an 'unleashing' of green energy and abandonment of the limits frame and the limits policies that have dominated the Environmental movement.  
  1. We must shift from a rhetoric and frames of limits to frames of empowerment and overcoming challenges.
Having read the book, I am not a convert to their solution--but I found the book rich with ideas and highly recommend it even if environmental books aren't your cup of tea.
I hope to follow this diary with others related to the myriad of topics discussed in this book, but for now I want to focus on the author's  framing of environmentalism and limits.
The authors believe that limitations will not be enough-- both in terms of policy aimed at fighting global warming, and in terms of framing the need to fight global warming.
They argue that even if we cut emissions to zero we would still have extreme weather to deal with for a long time to come. They argue that doing so would likely hurt the economy. They argue that people are most giving and empathetic when their basic needs are fully addressed.
Therefore, they argue, we need to invest billions in clean energy, thus buoying up jobs, and empathy while addressing carbon emissions. They call for an Apollo Energy Project (and they are part of the brain trust behind the Apollo Alliance
I sincerely agree that we need a new Apollo project. However where we could start (theoretically) begin cutting emissions tomorrow, we could not implement an Apollo project here, and in China, and India, and elsewhere as swiftly. Years will pass. There are also a number of steps which could be taken now which would not do major harm to the economy.
But the other side of the authors' argument is that we can not get through to people with a rhetoric of limits-- limit pollution, limit carbon, limit consumption. They argue people will not respond to this frame--and have not responded much since the start of the environmental movement--and that politicians can not win with this frame.
While I buy the argument that rhetoric and framing is critical, and we must unleash the power of the economy and produce clean technology--I don't buy the policy idea that we can exist without limits.
How can we as a species living on 1 planet with limited resources truly expect to survive indefinitely while popping out millions of babies a year, and consuming every resource in sight?
We can not.
And while some conservatives say that we can and should consume everything--and then the Rapture will come (yay!) I for one am not holding my breath for the rapture, and I for one care about the future of the human race.  
But at the same time, I can not fathom people in this country, or around the world accepting the idea that we need to stop having so many babies and begin shrinking the population, and start lightening the burden on the planet.
In a sense, we have over extended our welcome.
Still I think the authors truly have something to say about framing. If we take a page from conservatives, we learn that voters and people respond to values and vision--not facts and policies. (See the Rockridge Institute for more on this and books by George Lakoff Don't Think of an Elephant, Thinking Points Rockridge Institute & blog). I sincerely think we need to make the fight against global warming a value issue-- a moral issue--a fight to preserve the future for our children and grandchildren.
We also know that voters care as much more about the economy than any other issue.
We need a hybrid frame: The fight against global warming is a moral issue, and it is an economic issue--we must invest in our economy while investing in our children's future.
The authors never fully explain why we can not do both at the same time: limit carbon emissions and begin investing heavily in green technology. They suggest limits will not do enough, but no one in the movement is calling for limits alone. So while I buy their framing argument (and believe we need to extend into values) I think they are trying to jettison the inconvenient part of the truth: we must cut back on our emissions. How we frame this truth is another matter, and where I am with them.
I leave you with an excerpt from the the call for an Apollo Space program by JFK, an argument by way of isomorphism, of our need for a positive, uplifting, and moral-laden argument for the most pressing issue of our time.
Kennedy's vision contains some of the most moving words in this century's political speeches; his goal is ours--to motivate millions to attempt what seems impossible. To save the planet, we must go to the moon.
Link at the end of the speech.
Below he begins by talking about the speed of science since the turn of the 20th century. As you read a few of the subjects below remember that he was talking about the space program, but imagine he was discussing the need for a clean energy Apollo Project....
This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers. Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.....    
    If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.
    Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it--we mean to lead it.... We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding....
    We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man....
    We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. JFK Address at Rice University on the Nation's Space Effort    

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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